Kissing babies just doesn't do it anymore. Here in the 21st century, politicians are getting creative, gaming Twitter and other social media to get their messages through.
This month, in the journal Science, Wellesley College researchers describe the way politicians are using Twitter spambots, Twitter bombs, and search engine and ad tricks to manipulate elections.
The tools are designed to create the appearance of a groundswell of support for particular candidates or issues. Popularity breeds popularity. In a simple example, politicians buy Twitter followers to pad their numbers and make them seem more popular. But that's just the beginning of the tricks described by computer scientists Panagiotis "Takis" Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj. Others include:
Political campaigns set up bot accounts that send unsolicited replies to specific Twitter users.
A laboratory for this and other techniques was created for the Massachusetts Special Election in 2010, to fill the seat vacated by the death of Senator Ted Kennedy. Political spammers created nine fake accounts and sent about 1,000 tweets before being blocked by Twitter for spamming.
The messages targeted users who had just recently discussed the election. That's a clever touch; a random user who gets a political message from nowhere is likely to see it as spam. But someone who's just been discussing politics will think an @reply is a continuation of the same discussion.
"With the retweeting help of similarly minded users, >60,000 Twitter accounts were reached within a day at essentially no cost," the researchers write. "Twitter bombs, unfortunately, have become common practice."
Prefab tweet factories
These Twitterbombs target journalists, and urge supporters to send similar tweets. According to the Wellesley researchers:
The effect of this spam was to give the impression to the targeted journalists that their reporting was monitored and was not appreciated by 'the public' and, thus, applied pressure to the reporters to modulate their views. We do expect to see such low-budget prefabricated tweets in the next elections and whenever opportunity for putting pressure on journalists arises.
Campaigns also buy online search ads and promote tweets that appear in queries, including names and characteristics of a political opponent. For example, in the 2008 election, opponents of Pennsylvania Congressional candidate Bob Roggio bought an ad directing people who searched Roggio's name to an opposition site.
Campaigns also use photos and videos ridiculing the opponent, knowing images and video get prominent play in search engines.
Fighting back with Truthy
The researchers are currently developing tools (such as a Twitter project called Truthy) to combat these dirty social media tricks. According to an interview in the IEEE Spectrum:
We try to create semiautomatic tools that will help the receiver of information evaluate and research its trustworthiness. It will provide, for example, a button that will give information about the reputation of the sender, and another button to check who else may be broadcasting the same information, as well as any connection that the two may share. The final decision would rest with the users to decide whether they want to believe the message or not.
Truthy is a project developed at Indiana University, inspired by our earlier work on misinformation in the Massachusetts special elections. Truthy is looking at "bursty" activity in Twitter, since it is indicative of interesting events. They make their data available to crowds who evaluate them and decide whether they see some foul play in it.
Some of the Twitter techniques the Wellesley researchers describe don't seem particularly dirty to me. For example, creating negative images and videos about candidates seems like a legitimate extension of political cartooning, which has been a part of the democratic tradition for centuries.
This is all fascinating and clever in a morbid kind of way. And marketers are going to have to come to terms with it, just as they have had to deal with other evil marketing techniques, such as black-hat SEO and spam. The bad guys will embrace these techniques, and good guys will have to deal with the mess the bad guys leave behind them.
Read the original articles for more information, details, and links to more sources of information:
Social Media Makes the President: The US Election on the Web
Of Twitter Bots, Putin, & US Elections
Sentiment Analysts Gear Up for Presidential Race
— Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, Internet Evolution